The uncompromising conservatives who blocked Speaker John Boehner's tax bill were merely sticking to policies that Boehner and nearly all other GOP leaders have pushed, without reservation, for years: It's always wrong to raise tax rates on anyone, no matter how rich. The nation's big deficit is entirely "a spending problem, not a revenue problem." And in any deficit-reduction plan, spending cuts must overwhelm new revenues, by 10-to-1 if not more.
To be surprised by Boehner's failure is to assume one of two things. Either House conservatives didn't really believe their party's bedrock principles; or they would compromise after seeing President Barack Obama win re-election on a deficit-reduction plan that called for higher taxes on the wealthy.
Neither was true. And now the Republican Party is reeling from unbending fealty to its core principles.
Congress' structure makes compromise essential, and the nation once lionized the 19th century senator and congressman Henry Clay as "the Great Compromiser." But the modern Republican Party is heavily energized by the tea party movement, which sees compromise as a triumph of flabby pragmatism over courageous conviction.
All these threads weaved themselves into a knot late Thursday that strangled Boehner's bid to position his party behind a tiny concession on tax hikes. Whereas Obama campaigned to raise tax rates on couples making more than $250,000—a threshold he offered to raise in postelection negotiations—Boehner asked his House Republican colleagues to accept higher rates only on millionaires.
When an undisclosed number refused, Boehner had to abruptly send Congress home for the holidays and face reporters asking if he will lose his speakership.
"We had a number of our members who just really didn't want to be perceived as having raised taxes," even on millionaires, Boehner explained Friday.
And with good reason, many would say. The Republican establishment has long embraced activist Grover Norquist's drive to persuade nearly every GOP lawmaker to pledge never to raise taxes on anyone, no matter how big the gap between federal revenue and spending.
Even though conservative heroes such as President Ronald Reagan raised taxes at times, the anti-tax pledge became the Republican Party's "brand," as Norquist often said.
Norquist on Wednesday said Boehner's proposed tax on millionaires would not technically violate the pledge. But it was too late, or too little, for many House Republicans.
"We made a pledge not to let taxes go up," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. Barton entered Congress 24 years before the tea party's birth, proof that unyielding tax aversion runs deep.
Such intransigence in the face of a narrowly divided U.S. electorate dismays Republicans who say compromise can be vital to a party's survival.
The collapse of Boehner's tax effort "weakens the entire Republican Party," said Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, who is retiring after 18 years.
"It's the continuing dumbing down of the Republican Party," he said, "and we are going to be seen more and more as a bunch of extremists that can't even get a majority of our own people to support policies that we're putting forward. If you're not a governing majority, you're not going to be a majority very long."
Republican consultant and writer Craig Shirley told The Washington Post: "The national GOP is now simply a collection of warring tribal factions."
Republicans point to their success in maintaining control of the House, now assured for 16 of 20 years since 1994.
It's also true, however, that Democrats this year won more House votes nationwide than Republicans did. And Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
For some time, signs have indicated the Republican Party is shifting away from majority public opinion on key issues. They include taxes and spending.
Despite Republican leaders' insistence that the deficit be tackled with spending cuts alone, and no new taxes, a recent Pew Research Center poll found a different public view. The vast majority of Americans say the deficit should be addressed with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts in major programs.
Few prominent Republicans protested when Mitt Romney, the eventual presidential nominee, joined his primary opponents in saying he would reject a deficit-reduction plan even if it raised $1 in new revenue for every $10 in spending cuts. Some conservative writers said the GOP should exult in so lop-sided a deal.
But Romney's acquiescence contributed to the view that modern Republican leaders are well to the right of their predecessors, not to mention most American voters. In June, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Reagan would have a hard time being nominated by today's Republican activists.
Scores, if not hundreds, of House members focus more intensely on their home district's politics than on their national party's reputation. Many Republicans from staunchly conservative districts fear a primary election challenge from someone to their right.
Obama said this week he realizes that many House Republicans "come from districts that I lost. And so sometimes they may not see an incentive in cooperating with me, in part because they're more concerned about challenges from a tea party candidate, or challenges from the right."
Obama has his own problems with unbending liberals who want to protect Social Security, Medicare and other social programs from virtually any cuts. Obama's positions have varied, but he clearly signaled in his 2011 "grand bargain" talks with Boehner that he was willing to slow those programs' growth as part of a deficit-reduction, tax-increase deal.
It's still possible that Obama, Boehner and Congress can reach a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" before the Jan. 1 deadline. For now, however, the House Republicans' internal warfare makes it easier for opponents to paint them as extremists, unworthy of serious negotiations.
"The president and Congress have no obligation to radical Republicans who have no ground to stand on," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
It's doubtful that any congressional Republicans see themselves as radicals. Polls nonetheless show that key GOP policies are drifting from mainstream American sentiment. The Republican establishment has yet to do much about it.
EDITOR'S NOTE—Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.